Driven to be the best, R. Lewis never rests

Pro football: The Ravens linebacker's huge talent, work habits and leadership ability add up to something rare.

October 03, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Ray Lewis has locked onto his goal of becoming the best-ever linebacker the way he stares down a running back, another target he believes no one can prevent him from tackling.

Tomorrow, in his only appearance this season on the Monday Night Football stage, the Ravens' perennial All-Pro will unleash the explosion of Ray Nitschke, the instincts of Dick Butkus and the intensity of Mike Singletary.

Where Lewis has distinguished himself from these greats extends beyond the scope of John Madden's Telestrator. Lewis' fingerprints are on the defense unlike anyone that played before him.

Lewis exchanges notes with defensive coordinator Mike Nolan the day before every game and dissects the opposing team's strengths and weaknesses. Together, they put the finishing touches on the game plan, scripting the first dozen plays - from when to blitz to when to stunt to when to play it safe.

"He is as close to a true defensive quarterback as anyone I've ever coached," Nolan said.

Singletary, who is now the Ravens' inside linebackers coach, admitted such an arrangement is "unusual" and said he was allowed to have a limited influence on the Chicago Bears' defense only after several years with stringent coordinator Buddy Ryan.

And Nolan, who has been a coordinator for four NFL teams and coached Lawrence Taylor, said he has never given a player so much rein.

"I don't believe anybody else does it, but I'm open to everything Ray says because he's always got a reason why," Nolan said. "He is not just guessing and instinctively going to the ball every play. He studies it to the point that he knows."

Their weekly meetings started two years ago when Nolan took over as coordinator and Lewis' film study began to rival the coaches'.

Lewis spends hours every night breaking down game tape, picking up the tendencies of an offense and scribbling them in his notebook.

Just by looking at a formation or a player going in motion, he cannot only tell if a team is going to run, but also where it's going to run. His sideline-to-sideline domination - in which he consistently beats blockers to a spot and pulls down running backs behind the line of scrimmage - is as much a tribute to his awareness as his acceleration.

"Honestly, I can tell you what is going to happen on every play," Lewis said. "If you study the way you're supposed to study, the games are easy."

Through the eyes of the NFL's premier defensive player, every play is simply a replay.

"He's like Keanu Reeves' character in The Matrix," said Ravens receiver Kevin Johnson, who played against Lewis nine times with the Cleveland Browns. "He's the man who sees things in slow motion, sees them before they happen."

In nine seasons, Lewis has become one of the most disruptive forces in the game, a ferocious linebacker who has been named the league's Defensive Player of the Year twice. Only Taylor, a three-time recipient, has received the honor more.

Few have been able to roam where Lewis can, whether the discussion is about his range or involvement in the decision-making.

Lewis and Nolan talk before and after every meeting out in the hallway, where they'll identify the other team's tempo-setter, its playmaker and its favorite plays. This relationship has given Lewis the freedom to change six to 10 calls during the game based on his feel of what is going to occur.

In the home opener against Pittsburgh on Sept. 19, Lewis said he called off a blitz by Adalius Thomas and instead had him drop back in coverage. As a result, Thomas was in perfect position to pick off a pass in the flat.

"If something small changes on the field, the coach is going to have a hard time changing it until you come off the field," Lewis said. "I'm seeing it with my eyes. So before it happens and it burns us, I say, `Look, I got it. Let me run it.' Everyone understands that I'm going to put us in the best situation possible."

Setting an example

As much as Lewis represents the Ravens' psyche, he has equally become their conscience.

"He's one of the great defensive players and motivators I've ever been around," said Houston Texans linebacker Jamie Sharper, who played alongside Lewis from 1997 to 2001.

"The way he played, if you missed a tackle and he just looked at you, you said to yourself, `I've got to make that next tackle.' I don't think he had to verbally say anything. His play on the field made everyone else raise their game."

Lewis has established a level of excellence in practice, meetings and games, and won't accept anything less than the best from teammates. Since 2000, the Ravens are 34-17 (.667) with Lewis, compared to 5-6 (.455) when he was sidelined with a shoulder injury in 2002.

The same goes for the players who have left Lewis' defense.

Defensive tackle Sam Adams went to the Pro Bowl in his two seasons with the Ravens but hasn't been back since. And when was the last time there was a highlight featuring cornerback Duane Starks, safety Kim Herring or defensive tackle Lional Dalton?

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